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Bible Commentaries

Layman's Bible Commentary

Judges 6

Gideon and Abimelech (6:1-9:57)

The story in these chapters appears to be of a composite structure woven out of two traditions of the campaign of Gideon against the Midianites. It has been suggested that 8:4-21 retains one of these traditions, but it is generally agreed that it is almost impossible to separate the strands. There are poetic elements in the present text which seem to indicate that, like the song of Deborah in the preceding chapter, the story of Gideon may have had a long history in oral tradition and been given a poetic form.

In this epic we pass beyond the war with the inhabitants of Canaan, to the protection of Israel’s territorial gains and agricultural enrichment against the inroads made by the Bedouins of the surrounding desert lands.

Verses 1-10

The Oppression of the Midianites (6:1-10)

The usual record of Israel’s apostasy and defection is matched this time by invasion from without, instead of by oppression from within. God permitted invading nomads to lay waste the land to such an extent that Israelites fled to mountain hide-outs and strongholds. For seven years, as harvest drew near, these hordes swept in and lived on the spoils. The text indicates that, as in all such nomad invasions, the invaders brought their tents and families with them, camping in the midst of the agricultural wealth that Israel should have garnered, driving away the Israelite peasantry, and spoiling the land like a swarm of locusts. Their work accomplished, they returned to their desert fastness once more, to await the next harvest season. Their use of camels marks a new challenge to the Israelites. The latter had to deal with chariots of iron when fighting the civilized inhabitants of Canaan, and now they had to concern themselves with the swift-moving and organized camel raids of the Bedouins. There is little doubt that this new phenomenon and its surprise tactics contributed to the discomfiture of the Hebrews.

We are told that the invaders were mainly Midianites, desert peoples from the country lying south and east of Moab and Edom, and actually blood kin to the Hebrews, as the story of the patriarchs reveals (Genesis 25:1-6). With them came Amalekites from the southern desert region below Judah, and Bedouins from the east across Jordan. Their depredations carried them as far across Israel as Gaza in the area occupied by the Philistines, but the area around Shechem seems to have suffered most. Gideon, like most of the other judges, would appear to be a local rather than a national figure.

A prophet appears and God speaks through him to the people in response to their cry for deliverance. We note how all through these early records the emphasis falls upon the prophetic consciousness as a medium of the divine revelation. In this case, the words of the prophet recount the great deliverance from Egypt which God had already wrought and emphasize the divine command that people should not worship the gods of the land which they are to possess. Yet this latter injunction has been broken.

Verses 11-24

The Call of Gideon (6:11-24)

The story of the call falls into two parts, the account of Gideon’s confrontation with a divine messenger by the winepress and the narrative of his breaking down the altar to Baal. These may constitute two distinct accounts of the call, but, if so, they have been so well combined that they are to be considered as two elements in the same story. Gideon’s father is described as Joash the Abiezrite and thus as a member of the tribe of Manasseh. Gideon was threshing wheat by the winepress when the angel of the Lord came and sat under his father’s sacred oak. The word "angel" means literally "messenger." This angel assumed human form and, as in most of the early part of the Old Testament, signified a manifestation of God himself , a theophany It is difficult to say whether the visitation was a vision or an actual man possessed of a prophetic consciousness, who could be regarded for the time of his message as a visible appearance and extension of the Lord. For Gideon, the angel was God himself in invisible form. This is indicated by the statement in verse 14, that “the Lord" turned to him and spoke to him. The words of the angel of the Lord were the words of the Lord, and the encounter with the angel was an encounter with the Lord himself. The same understanding is found also in the story of the patriarchs (for example, Genesis 16:7-14). It is still true today that God can meet, and arrest, challenge and comfort us through other men and women whom we sometimes describe as being angels of God to us, messengers in and through whom the Lord has encountered us.

The declaration of the heavenly visitant, "The Lord is with you, you mighty man of valor," called forth from Gideon skeptical doubts as to whether God could be with a people who had suffered so sorely. He recounted God’s mighty deeds of deliverance in former days at the Exodus from Egypt, and declared that Israel’s subservience to the Midianites was a sign that God had forsaken his people. The reassurance of the angel that Gideon was chosen of God to deliver Israel served but to call forth protestations of inadequacy and weakness. Again the call was issued, and Gideon craved a sign which would confirm that God was showing him favor. He prepared an offering to the Lord and, directed by the angel, placed it on a rock. Its consumption by fire confirmed his call. The angel had vanished and Gideon, now convinced that he had encountered God’s messenger, was struck with fear. He had been in intimate contact with God and that portended death (see Exodus 20:19; Exodus 33:20). We have here the recurrent experience of all who stand thus in God’s presence. The consciousness of moral guilt, the sense of unworthiness, the feeling of inadequacy — we find them repeated again and again, as in the instances of the calls of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel (Isaiah 6:5; Jeremiah 1:6; Ezekiel 1:28 to Ezekiel 2:1). Only a feeling of utter inadequacy and moral insufficiency can fit men to be God’s instruments. As the lips of Isaiah were touched by the glowing coals from the altar and as the Spirit of the Lord stood Ezekiel on his feet, so here the Lord spoke directly to Gideon and encouraged him: "Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die." Gideon perpetuated the words in an altar which he erected on the site of the encounter with God and which he named "The Lord is peace."

Verses 25-32

The Altar to Baal (6:25-32)

The second element in the call of Gideon is the destruction of the altar to Baal which his father possessed. This altar discloses that Joash, like most of his Israelite contemporaries, had succumbed to the paganism of his Canaanite environment and was participating in the worship of the Canaanite pantheon and in the fertility rites associated with it. The mention of the Asherah beside the altar is a reference to the wooden poles set up in Canaanite sanctuaries. They may have taken the place of sacred trees or they may have been conventional emblems for the ancient Semitic goddess Asherah. In any case they were part of the pagan rites. Acting by stealth and at night, Gideon followed divine instructions — destroyed the center of heathen worship, erected an altar to the Lord, and offered a bullock as a sacrifice. If Gideon received a call to deliver Israel from the Midianite oppression, some ask, why did he begin with a religious reformation in his own family? This need raise no problem. It is a prerequisite of God’s victory over our foes that we must ourselves first be put right with him. Only when we are ourselves reconciled to him can we expect deliverance from the tyrants, spiritual or material, that oppress us. Our God performs his mighty works through regenerate people.

The men of the city awoke in the morning to find an accomplished fact. They demanded that Joash deliver up his son to death because of the sacrilegious act. Gideon’s father took the position that this was a contest between the Lord and Baal, and that the gods must be left to fight it out. We are reminded of the later incident on Carmel’s height when Elijah challenged Melkart, the Phoenician Baal, to a contest with the God of Israel. The issue was whether Baal was a god of power or just an empty and vain thing: Baal ought to be able to look after himself. The powerlessness of the pagan deity was manifested in the name that was now given to Gideon — "Jerubbaal," "Let Baal contend against him" (see Judges 7:1). Gideon’s survival after his destruction of Baal’s altar would be an indictment of Baal himself.

Verses 33-40

The Sign of the Fleece (6:33-40)

Now the Midianites commenced their annual invasion, crossing the Jordan and encamping in the Valley of Jezreel, a broad valley that opens into the Jordan from the Plain of Esdraelon. The fertility of this area was a particular attraction to the marauding hosts.

We note the charismatic character of Gideon’s leadership. A literal translation of the Hebrew of verse 34 is "The Spirit of the Lord put on Gideon." Through God’s Spirit, Gideon became a kind of extension of God’s personality. God’s Spirit put on Gideon like a garment, and Gideon was possessed by a power from beyond himself. The description is unusual but is paralleled later in the New Testament. The experience of life in the Holy Spirit is so ineffable in the New Testament that its authors exhaust all possible ways of describing it. The Christian life is life in the Spirit, it is dwelling in Christ or in his Spirit, it is Christ or his Spirit dwelling in man, it is putting on Christ. The outpouring of the Spirit on the whole Church foretold by Joel and declared an accomplished fact by Peter on the Day of Pentecost (Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:16-24) is already prefigured in the lives of Old Testament saints, prophets, and heroes; and here, too, there is a like variety of description.

Gideon, led by the Spirit, sounded the alarm and summoned together his Israelite defenders. Manasseh, his own tribe, rose in response and was joined by men of Zebulun, Naphtali, and Asher. These other tribes may have entered the battle later, as Judges 7:23 suggests.

The Israelite leader, however, still had his doubts. The sign given through the acceptance by God of his offering either was not sufficient or else is duplicated in another tradition by the story of the fleece. In any case, God was put to the test. Probably it was a second test. Gideon needed a reinforced faith to deal with the marauding bands. The test may appear to us a very material one, but we need to remember the rudeness of the times. So often in these early days it was on the material level that God approached men. They learned the reality of the deeper and spiritual levels of life through the mediation of the physical and material. Often in this period salvation was deliverance from material bondage and oppression, yet it pointed to the deeper salvation from sin. It is often true still that only through the physical can God open men’s eyes to the spiritual. Thus it should occasion no surprise that Gideon sought a visible and outward sign rather than some inward assurance and leading. Indeed, the Incarnation itself is, at a higher and unique level, a reminder that God is pleased to give himself to us, not through mystical vision, but by taking our flesh and manifesting himself to us in the nail-marked hands and wounded side of the Christ.

Not satisfied with one manifestation through the fleece, Gideon had to try it a second time, but the outcome confirmed the divine message and sent him out with confidence.

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Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Judges 6". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/judges-6.html.